x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The Outer Hebrides: rugged and remote

My kind of place David Sapsted loves the islands on the windy, westerly edge of Britain.

The beach at Tolsta on the east coast of the Isle of Lewis.
The beach at Tolsta on the east coast of the Isle of Lewis.

Simply, because you owe it to your senses of adventure and wonderment. If you have neither, stick to your poolside lounger because you would hate this remote, rugged string of islands, two hours by ferry off the northwest highlands of Scotland. It is a place that does not boast a sophisticated lifestyle or a wild nightlife. But the wildlife by night - and day - is simply sensational, and the landscapes and seascapes breathtaking. And all of this beneath weather that is as moody and changeable as a teenager.

There is only one town of any size, Stornoway (population 12,000) on the Island of Harris and Lewis, the largest island. The other large islands include North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist and Barra. Most of the islands are linked by ferries or causeways. Barra is the only place in the world where scheduled airliners use the beach as a runway. And it is those beaches, primarily along the western side of the islands and backed by machair grass that was used for centuries to thatch local homes, that will blow you away - sometimes literally on this most windy, westerly fringe of Britain. Luskentyre Beach on Harris has been named as one of the 10 best in the world, although there are many other contenders on Harris and the Uists, where I bought an old, lochside croft house as a holiday home last year. Then there are the majestic mountains of Harris, the freshwater and seawater lochans that give North Uist its "drowned" look, and the contradictions between South Uist's rocky east coast and its golden necklace of sand in the west. Above all, there is the simple, unhurried pace of life among a people more used than most of us to living with, and from, nature.

There is a scattering of very decent hotels, among the best being Braighe House (www.braighehouse.co.uk; 00 44 1851 705287; rooms from about £100 (Dh560)per person) on the sea's edge about two miles from Stornoway, the Tigh Dearg (www.tighdearghotel.co.uk; 00 44 1876 500700; £95/Dh533 per person) in Lochmaddy on North Uist and Hotel Hebrides (www.hotel-hebrides.com; 00 44 1859 502364; rooms from £75/Dh421 per person), a boutique hotel in Tarbert on Harris. Additionally, there are several comfortable, family-run hotels - a warming drink sitting round the peat fire at the Lochboisdale Hotel in South Uist has much to commend it - plus numerous, small bed and breakfasts and self-catering houses.

But perhaps the best beds are the DIY ones: either in a motor home or camping. As the Outer Hebrides do not attract thousands of visitors each week, you do not find yourself being directed to campsites or motor home parks. Rather, find yourself a sheltered spot on a grassy knoll overlooking a deserted bay and make it yours for the night. Apart from an inquisitive red deer or a honking seal, nobody will disturb you.

One of the finest ways of discovering the islands is to take part in one of the many guided walks that are conducted throughout the year by local groups and organisations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. It might be the best chance you get of seeing otters, even though the only ones I've spotted I've nearly run down as they crossed roads, most of which are single track with passing places. Unless you are a very keen walker, you will need some form of transport. And do not stick to the main roads - get yourself a decent map and explore the side roads and tracks.

Most native Hebrideans are a reserved, gentle people, so "meeting the locals" on anything but the most superficial level is all but impossible, unless you take up residence for a generation of two.

About 40 per cent are native Gaelic speakers but virtually all of them speak English, too. Several of the scattered townships have community centres staffed by local volunteers where you can not only meet folk but grab a sandwich and a coffee and, in most cases, get a Wi-Fi connection, too. There is also a large population of incomers, mainly retired, from England and Scotland - a more gregarious bunch if you happen to bump into them at the bar of the Lochmaddy Hotel. The pubs of Stornoway offer the liveliest scene but that is not why most people go to the islands.

My favourite is the Langass Lodge (www.langasslodge.co.uk; 00 44 1876 580285) on North Uist, a restaurant/hotel/bar with lovely views down to a loch and close to some standing stones (unfaithful husbands turned to stone by a witch, according to legend) and a Neolithic burial mound. I'm told the steak is excellent at the Langass and every time I go there I mean to have one, only to be seduced by the simply scrumptious seafood meals on offer (main courses from £34; Dh190). There are several good restaurants in Stornoway and I had one of the best Indian meals I've ever tasted at the Balti House.

Unless you want to go shopping or sample a faster pace of nightlife, I would avoid Stornoway and, to be frank, most of the Isle of Lewis, except the southwest corner. It is all a bit too drab. Much the same goes for the small, pancake isle of Benbecula, the island between the Uists. Again, there are some handy shops and the odd restaurant, but the airport and some unlovely RAF housing make it something of an eyesore.

Despite the dour aspects of so much of Lewis, the standing stones at Callanish - almost 50 mysterious, prehistoric slabs up to five metres high - are a mighty impressive sight in an eerily quiet lochside setting. Even those of us who are not "twitchers" by nature should cast eyes towards the sky for the immense and varied birdlife. The golden and sea eagles are among the most spectacular but there is so much more, from snowy owls to puffins. And if you do nothing else, visit the Hebridean Smokehouse on North Uist, owned and operated by Earl Granville - or plain Fergus to locals. The peat-smoked salmon, sea trout and, my favourite, scallops are to die for ... "the best in the world," according to Prue Leith, doyenne of British cookery writers. It is hard to disagree.

dsapsted@thenational.ae